At a recent meeting in Washington, DC I was astonished at the demonstrated lack of grasp of how neighborhood markets work. This, after all, was a meeting called by supposed experts in revitalization to discuss revitalization with other experts in revitalization.
Notably missing during six hours of painful back and forth rehashing of Great Society pabulum v 5.0 was any sense of what "demand" means. It's not just that there was a lack of understanding of demand, for three quarters of a day it was as if the very word - demand - was off limits.
Troubling though this was, it offers lessons to those truly interested in the work of neighborhood revitalization. An important lesson can be discovered by asking a basic set of linked questions, starting with "why the resistance to embracing the concept of demand?" Apart from the old (though accurate) saw that when the only tool one has is a hammer (see supply/production), all problems look like nails (build more housing) - which is relevant enough - I believe unwillingness to really address the demand side of the work is telling.
To really embrace demand is, after all, to embrace choice. Easy to say. But few in the field of community development really do. Why? Because "choice" requires that we tackle "consequences". And, of course, "consequences" in community development are anathema to a field unable to leave anyone behind. What are those consequences? Loss. In any genuine market there is competition and that means winners and losers. The consequence of choice is that some lose. Some blocks. Some home owners. Some neighborhoods. Some cities. This is unacceptable to many in the very field ostensibly committed to revitalization.
What does choice and consequence in the context of weak or struggling neighborhoods really mean? It means responsibility and agency. For what? For marketability.
Troubled neighborhoods suffer most of all from lack of marketability. People who can live someplace else prefer someplace else. Underneath this is "why?" Sometimes it is the location. Other times the quality of the housing stocks. Other times the normal behaviors in a neighborhood. But in all cases, the result is one level or another of DEMAND.
How can we seriously contemplate housing market recovery, not to mention weak neighborhood revitalization, if we are unwilling to truly, genuinely, embrace the hard work of growing demand?